Lately I’ve been having trouble finding stuff I want to read. I have to have stuff to read.
It used to be I would read anything, even my own work. I always finished what I started.
Lately though I need, basically, something that shows some intelligence. Some insight, a new perspective, prose that shows someone is thinking about what she is writing.
Combine that with my having become lazy, and wanting something entertaining and pleasant to read, and I can’t find enough.
So it occurred to me that I had never read Gogol’s Dead Souls. Mertvie Dushi. It’s one of the very few Great Books I never read. Turns out I don’t even own a copy. Or I lost it.
So I found a Dent classic version for 2$ on kindle. I also won’t buy stuff on Kindle for above the $9.99 suggested pricing unless it is something really special. Mine are under that, after all.
I discovered that one reason I hadn’t read it is a very banal reason. I tried to read it in Russian and Gogol likes lots of very specific detail, like for example what kind of suitcase his hero, Chichikov, carries. This is the kind of vocabulary no one has in a foreign language. Not even Russian to English dictionaries.
The other reason is more interesting.
Gogol meant to write a kind of Russian Divine Comedy, with an Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, but he only finished the first volume, his Inferno, about the hellish aspects of Russian life in his time.
So Dead Souls is deliberately awful and banal. It resembles the Eumaeus chapter of Ulysses, which concerns exhausted mediocre people thinking and speaking in cliches. Chichikov has invented a scheme whereby he buys dead serfs, who have died after the last census, and thus still are registered as alive, for a pittance from landowners, who are glad to sell nonexistent serfs. “Souls” is used the same way aircraft and ships use the term, for people on board. Chichikov takes out loans using the dead souls as collateral. He then defaults on the loan, and keeps the money. The creditor can only repossess the dead souls.
Think of bundled derivatives or tranched mortgages.
It’s tricky though because everyone he deals with is suspicious, paranoid, stubborn, incompetent, lazy, stupid and hypocritical. Their conversation is clicheed banalities and sanctimonious hypocrisy. Chichikov becomes a kind of less well meaning Don Quixote, where every endeavor gets bogged down in carriage wrecks in rainstorms on the way to recalcitrant landowners, fistfights, arguments, misunderstandings, cheaters trying to cheat each other and the like. It turns out his easy money requires strenuous and dangerous amounts of work and ingenuity, which he does not possess. Slapstick and comedy of errors.
So previously I had gotten bogged down in the banality and mediocrity of the characters, somehow missing the satire, which starts in the preface. Gogol asks his readers to kindly send letters of criticism of his book’s characters and situations to him for his edification. He suggests that many of his readers probably know things about Russian small towns or landowners or government regulations or sheep or livestock or whatever that he, Gogol, is ignorant of. He welcomes suggestions. He says that many readers probably have acute suggestions about what his characters ought to have said instead of what he records them as saying. His readers probably have acute insights into the personalities of his characters, which he Gogol failed to notice. He requests readers kindly forward all such helpful suggestions to him for his second edition. He adds that since he is rather slow on the uptake, it would be helpful if the readers explained all their points in prose which even a not particularly bright person could understand, and to kindly not stint on explaining everything at adequate length, not to assume that he will grasp points which have not been fully detailed. He requests that critics also not stint in helping him correct his inadequacies.
Why the coin didn’t drop when I first read this, I don’t know. Perhaps the Russian was over my head. Gogol is of course being hilariously, even sadistically, satirical. Over the course of his writing career, Gogol undoubtedly received scores of letters, and reviews of his work, which did exactly what he recommends. These were far from useful or gratefully received of course. Mostly they were consigned to the round file, possibly even before he had read the first paragraph. Every reader could do a better job, in their mind, than Gogol did. Not.
Dead Souls is a find, in other words. In concept, execution, character, sociological insight, style, thought and human relevance. Someone should have written one about the Great Recession.
If all of these characters, references and authors are unknown to you, think of what Kenneth Braithwaite complained bitterly to me about in Miami decades ago. He said that perhaps even worse than the colonists’ physical enslavement of Africans was what he called soul murder. The slaves’ entire culture and language was taken from them during the middle passage. I pointed out to Kenneth that in my writing class at a middle ranked university, Texas State, only one of my 30 plus kids had ever heard of Chopin. And that girl was from Peru.
Would you call that soul suicide? Dead souls?